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How You Should Study Poker If You Want to Win Big

Q: What is more important than hard work?

A: Harder work!

Malcolm Gladwell made that very clear in his 2011 bestseller “Outliers,” where he popularized the concept that is now known as the 10,000-hour rule.

The idea is that in order for someone to achieve mastery in any domain, they have to spend – you guessed it – at least 10,000 hours. Although the precise number has been seriously contested, the principle behind it has not. It is generally accepted that a solid work ethic ranks at the top of traits necessary for success. Gladwell summarized this eloquently in one of his most famous quotes:

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good.

Then there are those who spend their entire lives practicing:

You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.

In case you are wondering, that was Michael Jordan.

MJ was famous for his consistency, perseverance, and grit throughout his entire career. Not only did he spend an enormous amount of his free time working on his craft, but perhaps more importantly, he invested the majority of that time working on the basics (work-outs, free throws, etc.). It is very hard to argue with someone like that about the power of fundamentals.

Speaking of MJs, sports is not the only field where practice makes perfect.Michael Jackson was notoriously obsessed with his dance routines. To improve his signature fluidity and technique, he habitually repeated the same “standard” moves for hours on end, until he would literally collapse from exhaustion. Writers are similar. The likes of Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King made it a habit to write as many as 2000 words a day. Talk about dedication!

The list goes on, but you get the idea. Although you may be wondering: why do these highly successful people seemingly waste their time with such tedious tasks? Are they not “better” than that? Wouldn’t their precious time be better spent working on more advanced concepts, matching their great talent?

These are fair questions, although the unstated assumption behind that is that fundamentals and success are uncorrelated. On the contrary, the exact opposite seems to be true. Not only are these mundane tasks not as wasteful as one might think at first glance, they may very well be the core of what makes these legends great to begin with. Thus, we should seriously consider applying these tested methods in other domains of life, especially ones which are relatively new.


Prioritize Your Poker Fundamentals

This brings us to (winning) poker. Very much like any other learned skill, poker has its own set of fundamentals that we need to constantly prioritize over other fancier and more refined techniques. If we want to be successful, perhaps we need to think like MJ and make sure we are done shooting “free throws” for the day before moving on to more elaborate tasks.

Upswing coach Ryan Fee has a nice metaphor to describe this idea. He visualizes poker as a tree that bears each opportunity (for profitability) as a fruit. Of course, not all fruits are equally accessible and valuable. 

high, mid, and low hanging poker fruit

At the bottom of the tree we have the “low-hanging fruit,” namely fundamental concepts that are easy to learn and very important to understand. These are things like pot odds, pre-flop hand selection, c-bet strategies, etc. 

Next, there are the “mid-hanging fruit,” i.e. concepts that are tougher to grasp and less consequential than the low-hanging fruit. Things like blockers and basic balancing strategies fall under this category. 

Finally, there are those isolated and often thorn protected “high-hanging fruit” which are not only hard to reach, but may also hurt us in the process of trying to get them. These are the most elaborate and subtle game theory concepts (bluff-to-value ratios, minimum defense frequency, optimal balancing, etc). If used properly, these strategies will give us a relatively small win-rate boost, but, if used improperly, they will be very costly.

(Note: High-hanging fruit strategies can be “costly” even when applied properly. That’s due to opportunity cost: the idea that studying other, less sophisticated strategies may be a more profitable use of our time.)

One will usually gain more profitability from the low-hanging fruit as from higher ones. In other words, one shouldn’t spend time studying complex concepts without first nailing down their fundamentals. Sure, we can eventually attempt to get all the fruit within our grasp, but it does not hurt to do that in order of convenience. On the contrary, it may help us speed up the process.

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9stacks

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